It is a cruel twist of fate that cold and flu season coincides with the holiday season. Last weekend, when I should have been out Christmas shopping, I was home battling the onslaught of a nasty cold – a battle that I lost, and am now hacking away and frightening family, friends, and co-workers who dread the holiday cold as much as I do.
Since I haven’t yet gotten around to getting a flu vaccine, it could be much worse. The flu can lead to pneumonia and other complications, so it is important to help stop the spread of the flu and get vaccinated. According to the CDC, flu-related deaths range in the thousands each year, and over 200,000 in the US are hospitalized from flu-related complications every year.
This year’s flu season is starting early and here in Georgia, we are flanked by widespread flu outbreaks. The CDC is warning that this could be a particularly bad flu year because it is starting so early. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Tennessee are already seeing widespread outbreaks. Check this map to see how your state is doing, and keep your holidays jolly by taking a few precautions.
Give your immune system a boost by eating healthy foods (if you have food allergies, take medications, or have other health issues, be sure to check with your doctor before making any changes to your diet). You may already know that oranges pack plenty of vitamin C to ward off a cold, but other foods, such as garlic, can also boost your immune system. Find yogurt that states “live active culture” on the container. These probiotics can help protect you against a cold or flu virus. Kiwi fruit contains more vitamin C than oranges, potassium levels that rival bananas, and a healthy amount of beta-carotene. In addition, kiwi fruit is very good for the respiratory tract and can help lessen wheezing and coughing.
If you lose the battle and succumb to illness, chicken soup isn’t just an old wives’ tale – it really does help relieve cold symptoms. Ginger eases stomach ailments and helps relieve flu symptoms. Honey will soothe sore throats and coughs – find local or raw honey, or look for darker honey varieties such as buckwheat honey.
Drink plenty of fluids if you get sick (even milk — it isn’t true that milk causes more mucus). And while this is the season of parties, try not to consume much alcohol if you have a cold. Alcohol can cause dehydration and worsen symptoms like congestion.
Regular cardio exercise can also help ward off a cold. (Check with a doctor before starting an exercise program.) Aerobic exercise actually increases your ability to fight off viruses, so don’t skip your morning run or spin class. In addition, exercise can help relieve stress. Try adding some yoga or meditation to your exercise routine, since relaxation can increase interleukins – naturally occurring proteins crucial to your immune system.
Get plenty of sleep. I think, in addition to having two kids home sick with colds recently, this was where I went terribly wrong. It’s that time of year – get-togethers, out-of-town visitors, school events, holiday concerts – since Thanksgiving, sleep has been an illusive thing. Make sure you aren’t letting the chaotic holiday season interfere with your normal sleep patterns.
Of course, the best way to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands frequently. Make sure you are washing them thoroughly with soap for at least 20 seconds. (I once heard that you should sing the “Happy Birthday” song while washing your hands. Not only does this help get rid of the germs by washing all the way to the end of the song, it will make you happy. So sing!)
Did you know that smokers get colds more frequently than non-smokers? Not only do they get colds more often, but colds in smokers last longer and are more severe, due to the damage smoking does to the lungs. If you have a cold, try not to smoke, and avoid being around others who do.
While antibiotics won’t help a cold or flu, you may want to see a doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or get worse. It is possible for a bacterial infection to set in due to the mucus buildup produced by a virus. See your doctor if you have a fever that won’t go down, a cough that disrupts your sleep, worsening symptoms, increased shortness of breath, or pain that may be caused by a sinus infection or ear infection.
And while it may not be possible to completely avoid other people while you are sick, it’s a good idea to stay in your apartment, curled up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a cozy blanket. If that isn’t possible, wash your hands often, don’t touch your face, and don’t cough into your hands – use a tissue or cough into your elbow.
Here’s to a healthy, sniffle-free holiday season!